Today’s Reading: Philemon 1
You can be forgiven of your past but still have an unfixed past. Forgiven and fixed are two different things, and sometimes people confuse them at salvation.
Being born again will change your relationship with God, but won’t necessarily change your relationship with your family, the courts, the IRS, the law, a judge, a probationary officer, VISA, a collection agency, a halfway house, or a bad marriage. At least not immediately. You are forgiven but not fixed yet.
Let me give you a scenario. If you robbed a bank and got saved after that, are you forgiven and really going to heaven? Yes. Are you going to jail? Yes. Are you now innocent since you are forgiven? Nope.
You are forgiven, but you may have a past that still needs to be fixed. You can be going to heaven and going to jail at the same time. God’s forgiveness always exonerates in the courts of heaven, but is not guaranteed in the courts on earth. Salvation forgives sin (past, present, and future) but it does not resolve it.
This is such an important issue that a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it. A twenty-five verse book, which is the best and most practical help on this issue—Philemon. The verses will pop off the page when I give you the background. We have three characters in the story: Paul, who is in prison, is the aged apostle and the writer of the letter; Philemon is a Christian who had a slave who ran away (and has the church in his house); Onesimus is the slave who ran away and who gets saved while he is trying to get lost among the residents in Rome.
In the first century, two million of the five million people in Rome were slaves. To purchase a slave was very expensive. There were 120 occupations for them—some were executives and had salaried positions; most slaves served between ten and twenty years and usually were free by the age of thirty. But if a slave ran away, it was like he was committing suicide. It was punishable by death or branding the letter “F” on his head, which stood for the Latin word Fugitivus.
Bottom line: Onesimus ran away.
Bottom line: by law he can be killed or branded.
Paul knows this. Onesimus knows this. Philemon knows this.
While Paul is in prison in Rome, guess who he meets? Onesimus. And guess who Paul leads to the Lord? Onesimus.
Now we come back to our original thought: you can be forgiven but your past is still unfixed. So Paul has to write a letter and send Onesimus back to Philemon with that letter.
Listen to some of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This is a masterpiece:
“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:10-16)
Jesus has forgiven Onesimus. Will Philemon forgive Onesimus?
Paul doesn’t mention the name Onesimus in the letter for nine verses. I want you to keep this in mind—this letter is being hand delivered. The Jerusalem postal service is not doing it, but the subject of the letter is; Onesimus. I wonder if he knows exactly what is in the letter as he is coming back to Philemon.
Commentary writer William Barclay says, “Christianity never entitled anyone to default on debts.” Paul leads him to the Lord and then leads him to address his debt issue. The IRS. The police. The outstanding credit card and collection agencies—for the Christian all these have to be addressed with an Onesimus letter.
Don’t call your irresponsibility a trial that God is going to get you through. Irresponsibility is fixed by integrity not a miracle. You address the unresolved, not rebuke it. That’s what the letter to Philemon teaches us.
Paul writes in verse 21 “I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more!” (NLT). Paul is saying, “You may be heating up the branding iron with the F on it. I’m asking you to put it down. I want you to forgive him—that’s the F I want heating up in your heart.”
Onesimus was useless when he was in verse 11. He stole from Philemon in verse 18. But here’s the game changer: he is now a brother in Christ, not just an employee.
Now the big question: what is the end of the story?
No one knows. The Bible does not tell us if Philemon forgives him or if Onesimus lives. I want to make a guess from something I saw in a church history book. In Earle Cains’s Christianity through the Centuries, he writes:
“Some fifty years after Philemon was written, just on the heels of the apostles, was the church father, Ignatius, a martyr on the way to his death. He was allowed to write letters of encouragement and one of those letters was written to the church in Ephesus. And in that letter he makes mention of their pastor. His name? Onesimus.”
A coincidence or a miracle? Did the runaway slave become a pastor? Did the man who tried to hide out in Rome find himself leading the church in Ephesus? You may say, “That’s a big stretch. That’s a tall order.”
If an ex-murderer can write most of the New Testament letters, then I think this is feasible with God. Wait! That ex-murderer is the writer of this Philemon letter—the apostle Paul.
Jesus says it like this, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).